When choreographer Paul Lightfoot first suggested Kunstkamer to the Australian Ballet's David Hallberg, the pair were standing on the balcony of the famous Hotel Metropol in Moscow, overlooking the Bolshoi Theatre.
Hallberg thought his friend of 20 years had just uttered a swearword.
"I thought, how do you pronounce that? How do you say that again?" Hallberg, the Australian Ballet's new artistic director, told AAP.
A Kunstkamer is, in fact, an 18th century cabinet of strange or rare objects.
It's also the inspiration for a celebrated contemporary dance work from Lightfoot's Nederlands Dans Theater.
Kunstkamer wowed audiences in Amsterdam when it opened in 2019, but the show has only been performed a dozen times due to the pandemic.
Thanks to that conversation on a Moscow balcony, the Australian Ballet will perform Kunstkamer for the first time outside the Netherlands.
With 40 or 50 dancers onstage, the show almost defies description, going beyond what audiences would expect from a ballet company to include spoken word, song, and film.
"I would tell audiences to come in, sit in their seat and just take in what is going on in front of them. It's not going to be exactly what you imagined it to be," Hallberg said.
Paul Lightfoot conceived the work with his longtime collaborator Sol Leon to mark the 60th anniversary of Nederlands Dans Theater, alongside choreographers Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite.
It seems fitting then, that the Australian Ballet should dance Kunstkamer as it too approaches its 60th year.
Lightfoot whittled down a playlist of hundreds of tracks over more than a year to decide on the music, which ranges from Beethoven to Arvo Part and Janis Joplin.
His choreography centres on waves of ensemble movement, with solos and pas de deux that reference musical theatre and even physical comedy.
He was well aware the show would prove a challenge for dancers used to the classical repertoire, as he told Hallberg in a recent interview.
"It's like we are going to ask your company to suddenly learn to speak Russian and Japanese, French and a bit of Dutch," Lightfoot said.
"The ambition is that the curtain will go up and people will watch the Australian Ballet and almost not recognise them."
On top of that, Sol Leon insisted that Hallberg should make a return to the stage, an experience the former Bolshoi dancer admits made him doubt himself at times.
"Putting on a costume again, stage makeup, getting on stage feeling the lights, it's been a little surreal," Hallberg said.
Adam Elmes, 22, is relatively new to the Australian Ballet, and has found himself learning the new language of Kunstkamer opposite Hallberg - who is technically his boss.
Elmes grew up in a musical theatre family, and Kunstkamer has been his chance to become the triple threat he's always dreamed of.
He's even taken singing lessons specifically for the show.
"I know I can dance, I know I can act - but singing is like this big question mark," Elmes said.
AAP spoke to Elmes as he came offstage after dress rehearsal, and while he's excited about opening night, there's nervousness too.
"It's not really like anything the Australian Ballet has ever done, and it's also not like much that Australian audiences get to see. I think people should view it as art, like when you enter a gallery or a museum," he said.
The Australian Ballet production of Kunstkamer premieres at the Sydney Opera House on April 29.
Australian Associated Press
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